Atari 7800

In 1986 Atari released the Atari ProSystem which is generally referred to as the Atari 7800 after the console had been announced in 1984 but shelved due to the sale of the company at that time, leading some to term the console’s release as a relaunch. The console used simple digital joysticks and was one of the first systems to be nearly entirely backward compatible due to its compatibility with the Atari 2600. At the consoles release it was priced $140 which was comparable to other consoles on the market at the time. In 2009 the Atari 7800 was ranked by IGN the 17th greatest system and IGN justified its low ranking due to the cancellation of additional components, the delays in the release of the console, and an overall lack of financial support from the company leading to the console being virtually a cooler looking platform to play old Atari 2600 games.

History of the Atari 7800:

Unlike previous console releases from Atari the 7800 was designed by an outside company called General Computer Corporation (GCC) in 1983 with plans of release during 1984 which was delayed due to the sale of the company to Tramel Technology Ltd. The project was initially named the Atari 3600 however it would eventually be changed to the Atari 7800. There were several things that were taken into account while the system was being designed including competition from the ColecoVision concerning superior graphics capabilities, consumer criticism of the Atari 5200 for the lack of compatibility with the Atari 2600, and finally the dropping prices of home computers leading many consumers to move away from game console in favor of computer with capabilities such as word-processing.

Since GCC had previous experience creating arcade games the Atari 7800 was created using similar graphical capabilities to arcade games of the day with the ability move a very large number of items across the screen which made it superior to previous consoles. The 7800 was powered with an Atari SALLY 6502 processor which was capable of running at 1.70 MHz which made it comparable to the home computers which were on the market at the same time. To address the public’s concern with previous lack of compatibility the 7800 was released to be generally compatible with the previous 2600 games out of the box without the need of an additional adapter. The Atari 7800 was also designed in order to be a fully fledged personal computer with the use of a keyboard addition that was developed as well as compatibility with disk drives and printers in order to capture some of the home computer market share. Other things used in the design of the system included battery powered RAM cartridges used to record high scores and an expansion port believed to be used for a laser-disc player which was never released.

Launch of the 7800:

The console was initially released in California in 1984 with launch games including Ms. Pac Man, Pole Position 2, Centipede, Joust, Dig Dug, Desert Falcon, Galaga, Foodfight, Ballblazer, and Track and Field. During this year Atari was also a sponsor of the Summer Olympics in order to help promote the console’s release but this was not capitalized upon due to the sale of the company. During 1984 Warner Communications decided to sell Atari’s Consumer Division back to Jack Tramiel leading all of the projects to be temporarily halted during the inspection phase after the sale. Today many groups have made claims that Tramiel cancelled the 7800 until the NES proved to be successful however in reality it was due to a contract disagreement over pay with GCC for the development of the console after the sale which was eventually settled by Tramiel paying them. When the console was released Tramiel only used a budget of $300,000 for marketing making the system release far more muted than it had been planned by Warner Communications. The keyboard component and high score memory card would also be eventually cancelled and replaced with a larger library of games to be made available for the console.

Marketplace Challenges:

One factor that weighed into the success of the Atari 7800 was its high number of ports of popular arcade games much like the Atari 2600 had when it competed with Intellivision. However the 7800 suffered from being locked out on producing many games due to Nintendo’s licensing agreements with developers who chose to release their games for the popular NES which restricted the games from being released for another console for two years. Nearly all the games for the Atari 7800 were developed or contracted out by Atari with the exception of only eleven games released by third parties like Activision or Froggo. One way that Atari found to fight the licensing agreements held by Nintendo was to release games which were not released for the NES by the parties owing the rights to some of the former arcade titles allowing games such as Super Mario Brothers, Commando, Rampage, and Kung Fu Master to also be released for the 7800.

Demise of the 7800:

The death of the Atari 7800 as well as the rest of the Atari game console line would come in 1992 when the company announced that production of these lines would cease. At the time which Atari put an end to production the Nintendo Entertainment System had already dominantly controlled the American market with 80% of the field while Atari held only 12%. Although the Atari 7800 did not prove to be as successful as its competitor the NES nor succeed in restoring the Atari to market dominance. the console did however end up being profitable for the company due to its backward compatibility with 2600 games and its brand recognition.

Graphics:

The graphics for the 7800 were created using a custom chip called the MARIA which was radically different from other consoles that had been released making it more difficult for programmers to release games for the system. The MARIA used a far larger number of sprites which were described using display lists which contained pointers to graphics data, color information, and the horizontal positioning. The MARIA chip was capable of using several different graphics modes including 160 by 320 pixels which allowed for higher resolution graphics than the 7800’s competitors, however the intense processing demands of the chip often led programmers to use less pixels than were possible. Another feature of the MARIA was the possibility to adjust the color palette, graphics resolution, and background color between scanlines allowing programmers to use higher resolution text with lower resolution and more color for game play area graphics. The MARIA excelled at moving large numbers of sprites across the screen without the flickering issue held by other consoles but it was much more difficult for game developers to create side scrolling games on than the NES.

Sound:

The 7800 was often criticized for its lack of capability for improved sound quality due to the use of nearly identical sound equipment from the 2600 for compatibility. The reasons for not updating the equipment were due to lack of space on the motherboard as well as the increase in costs of production. In order to help improve sound a POKEY sound chip was developed for use in cartridges however only a few games came with this chip including Ballblazer and Commando. The lack of adequate advancement in sound capabilities is considered to be one of the major weaknesses of the console. 

Backward Compatibility:

There are a number of features which distinguish the Atari 7800 from the 2600 such as the fact that the 7800 used a full Atari SALLY 6502 processor compared to its predecessor which used a stripped down 6507 which ran at much slower speeds. The 7800 also had increased RAM capacity, the capability to access larger amounts of cartridge memory at one time, and vastly improved graphical architecture. The compatibility between the 2600 and the 7800 is possible due the inclusion of the same chips found in the 2600 allowing the play of the older games. When in compatibility mode the 7800 used a Television Interface Adapter (TIA) to create both its graphics and sounds and the processor slows to match the 2600’s 6507.

Peripherals:

The 7800 came bundled with an Atari Proline Joystick controller which consisted of two buttons and the joystick, however after criticism they released a controller similar to their competition although it was not available for purchase in the U.S. The 7800 was also compatible with most of the peripherals of the 2600 which was not the case with other consoles like the NES or Sega Master System. The Atari 7800 also had an available X-G1 lightgun which was released for use with games including Alien Brigade, Crossbow, Meltdown, and Barnyard Blaster.

Cancelled Peripherals:

The 7800 had several peripherals which never made it to production including the high score memory card which would have saved up to 65 player high scores, the computer keyboard, the rumored laserdisc player, and a dual joystick controller.

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